Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mrs. Dalloway: A Perfect Novel

The first time I read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, I felt like I was sleep-walking through it. There are no chapters; it just keeps going on and on. There is no plot. The narration flies from the thoughts of one character to another, and one of those characters is crazy, so it made me a little delirious sometimes. Nothing really drew me into the story, I just read it because I had decided to read it. But as soon as I was finished, I was eager to give it another go, and now, I think this novel is one of the great creations in fiction.

Virginia Woolf, like her contemporary James Joyce, was trying to invent a new type of novel in which the narration was driven not by events but by the thoughts of the characters. While events are apparently straight-forward, thoughts meander, and feelings bump up and down irrationally. Woolf limits the action to the events of one day on which Clarissa Dalloway, a political wife in London just after World War I, gives a party. When she goes out to buy flowers for the party, we hear her thoughts about everything and everyone she sees, and we hear the thoughts of the people she encounters as well. When she receives an unexpected visitor from India, a fellow who had wanted to marry her, named Peter Walsh, we watch her fluctuation of feelings, and his as well. When Peter leaves and goes for a walk in the park, the narration follows his impressions, but when he passes a madman, called Septimus Smith, who is freaking out, we are stuck in the thoughts of the crazy guy, which aren't all that easy to interpret. Then we have to find out the inner reactions of his wife, which are also pretty confused and upset.

So Woolf presents the minds of four completely different types of people: Clarissa, who is the perfect hostess; Peter, who has failed to realize his talent because of his penchant for impractical romances; Septimus, who is suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome; and Lucrezia, whose mind is confused by exposure to a madman. The game is to explore a wide range of characters, to express the nature of consciousness in many manifestations.

Woolf herself had battles with mental illness and eventually committed suicide. Septimus' story gave her the chance to depict her impression of the mental health community, which was not favorable. Once Septimus gives his life over to doctors, they make it so unbearable that they drive him to commit suicide. Septimus offs himself the day of Clarissa's party, causing the evil Sir William Bradshaw, a renowned psychiatrist, to be late for the party. That is how Woolf ties the two characters together. The perfect hostess hears the story of the suicide and takes it to heart. Even in the midst of a charming party, where everything is apparently all bright and friendly, she feels the cold attraction of death; but her buoyant spirit soon pushes her back into her role.

Clarissa is a very likable character. What I like best about her is that she observes everything closely and enjoys her sensory experience to the hilt. She also observes herself and recognizes her insincerity. She behaves warmly, even effusively, toward everyone, while recognizing in her heart that she doesn't actually feel that kindly toward everyone, and that she often has ulterior motives; she plays a delightful role, and she knows it. To be consistent in her role, she has to step back a little from true intimacy; she has to protect and hide her thoughts and feelings, which are not so consistent at all. Being the consummate hostess is both her strength and her weakness, and she knows it. What I like is that she feels satisfied with her life and herself.

I can't portray the ultimate attraction of this book for me—the individual sentences are remarkable, full of stunning imagery and subtle insights. I looked over the passages I had highlighted, but none of them work very well out of context; they don't stand alone. But it's the language that counts, for me. The novel is like a long poem, an ode to the complexity and richness of life.